Long-ish excerpts from KDW’s piece at NRO about standardization in a continent-spanning republic of diverse peoples:
At the time of this nation’s Founding, there were 13 distinct communities that had been colonies and had become states. Some of them were urban, industrial, and densely populated; some of them were rural, agricultural, and sparsely populated. They had religious differences (we sometimes forget that while the federal government is now forbidden from creating an established church, the states did have official, state-supported churches), economic differences, and what turned out to be an irreconcilable difference on slavery. The smaller states were hesitant to join the Union without protections and guarantees that they would not be subjected to a vulgar democracy in which their interests would be swamped by those of the more populous states.
The compromise that emerged from that situation is what is sometimes known as “dual sovereignty.” The federal government and the states each have their own sovereign powers, which sometimes overlap: That is why the terrorist Terry Nichols, for example, was tried both on federal charges and in Oklahoma on state murder charges. Each sovereign has the right to make its own laws and to enforce them. The principal role of the federal government was, under this understanding, to take responsibility for issues that cross state lines or that concern the union of states as a whole: interstate commerce, foreign relations, national security, etc. There have been more and less expansive interpretations of what constitutes a genuinely federal issue, with conservatives historically leaning toward a more restrictive view of the federal government and progressives looking to put the federal government into the service of national economic-planning programs, national infrastructure projects, and the like. These interpretations have never broken down neatly along party lines or political affiliations: The Republican party of President Lincoln’s time had a wing that was recognizably conservative in the contemporary sense of that word, but President Lincoln, like his fellow Republican President Eisenhower a century later, was very much interested in what he called “improvements,” meaning mostly what we now call “infrastructure,” canals and railroads in one century and the federal highway system in the next. These projects were thought of as being national in the sense that they would improve the economic productivity and public life of the nation as a whole by enabling the easy movement of goods and people — and, if necessary, soldiers: It’s the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
Projects that are national in scope in a country as large and complex as the United States inevitably require standardization and regimentation…
And we should not turn our noses up at standardization: It has revolutionized everything from intercontinental shipping to communication to pharmacology. Having more or less standardized shoe sizes is really useful if you are buying shoes online. (And the act of doing business online is made possible by a great many standardization efforts.) The problem is a familiar one: lack of intellectual humility. The political mind is fundamentally primitive, and it is captive to a kind of magical thinking, laboring under the superstition that the real world is governed by the words in the Federal Register rather than by physics, economics, and history. Observing the efficiency and effectiveness of a limited and manageable enterprise such as a well-organized assembly line or a scrupulously observed railroad schedule, the progressive imagines that the same principles can be put to work managing incomprehensibly complex organic phenomena such as health-care systems and energy markets. This is the dream of society as one big factory under the management of benevolent (not to say godlike) experts…
If you believe that what the world needs — what America needs — is efficient expert management, then you will pursue policy goals that emphasize size, scale, homogeneity, systematization, and regimentation. And your preferred instrument almost always will be the federal government; 50 states doing things 50 different ways is incompatible with your vision of intelligent expert administration. (Of course I am simplifying here, but I do not think that these characterizations are unfair or uncharitable.) And that is what we have seen from our modern Democrats for a generation … Their commitment to a Washington-based approach to political and economic life has not wavered.
Unfortunately for them, our Constitution is set up along other lines.
The interests and position of the states are fortified by institutions such as the Electoral College and the Senate, even as diminished as it is: Changing the nature of the Senate was one of the great political achievements of the Progressive Era.
Which of our institutions do progressives most detest? The Electoral College and the Senate. … The progressive (and occasional conservative) preference for more direct mass democracy is based either on a romantic overestimate of the intelligence of the mass electorate or (more likely, I think) overconfidence in their ability to manipulate that mass electorate.
It is unsurprising, then, that most of the foregoing Democratic arguments are mere demands for greater political power disguised as calls for “fairness,” an infinitely plastic concept. And we can be reasonably confident that if certain shoes had been on other feet — if Democrats enjoyed a commanding position in the states, or if Mrs. Clinton had won in the Electoral College with a couple million fewer votes than Donald Trump — that the intensity of their complaints would be diminished. But this is not only naked political calculation: The belief that the United States should be administered as a single unitary entity and that the 50 states are 50 impediments to national progress and efficient national administration is deep in their political thinking. In fact, it may even be the case that their political calculation is a lagging indicator driven in part by their policy vision: Being so focused on Washington, it is natural that the Democrats have allowed the atrophy of their political muscle in the states, leading to diminished power in them. At the same time, the people in the more rural states have not failed to appreciate that the Democrats’ Washington-first approach devalues them and their communities — precisely the problem that our constitutional order was designed to ameliorate.
Many Democrats argue that those dusty old 18th-century debates about how to organize the union are no longer relevant. The people of Wyoming obviously feel otherwise…
Conservatives sometimes are ridiculed for treating the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the words of the Founding Fathers as though they were delivered on stone tablets by Moses himself. (My own belief is that the conservative attitude regarding the Constitution and the Founders is a very healthy prejudice to have, even if its expressions can be sometimes a little silly, e.g., waving all those pocket Constitutions in people’s faces as though that were an argument.) Perhaps we conservatives are inclined to cleave to our Constitution simply because it is ours, but we should also appreciate that the order it creates makes for reasonably good governance and the chance of happy living. Conservatives should rejoice — loudly — in the facts that ours is a large, complex, messy republic, full of diversity of a much more meaningful sort than that contemplated by the self-flagellating partisans of intersectionality. We will argue our case, but we also are satisfied, if not quite content, to let California be California — and we would be much more content if our progressive friends were satisfied to let Texas be Texas.
What we sometimes describe as federalism is not a mere mechanism of political compromise, a way of allowing Republican candidates for federal office to dodge contentious issues by insistent that they be “left to the states,” though there is much to be said for leaving those to the states. It is, or should be, part of a broader conservative politics that insists that the states matter and that the communities within them matter — that Americans matter in the particular, not only in the aggregate. What is good and worth defending about Wyoming and North Dakota is good and worth defending irrespective of what 50 percent plus 1 of the American people at large think about it. (And who’s asking them, anyway?) The politics and the social dynamic are right there in front of our eyes: The progressive model of homogenizing and regimenting politics is very much of a piece with the hysterical demands for obedience on social media, the speech policing on the campuses, the excesses of the feminists and the other grievance professionals, the stultifying conformity that dominates the corporate cultures of Google, Facebook, Apple, and others. It is an attempt at the standardization of places and communities — and the standardization of souls. Their instrument is the politics of “My Gang Is Bigger Than Your Gang,” what stands between us and them is a frail little fence made of parchment and memory.